Adolphus Hailstork -- what a memorable name! -- is a longtime professor of music at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. He is a prolific composer but my only previous exposure to his music was a fine CD of his chamber music on the Albany label, and it made me eager to hear more. I was not disappointed with this really quite excellent current release. It contains Hailstork's Second and Third Symphonies played beautifully by the Grand Rapids Symphony under its music director, David Lockington.
The two symphonies could not be more different: the Second is entirely serious and the Third, which is my favorite of the two, is a lighthearted and entirely lovely work in the usual four movements. The Third, which comes first on the CD, begins with a memorable pentatonic trumpet tune that is treated to a combination of minimalist and Coplandesque working-out. (Actually, on reflection, this movement reminds me a lot of the extroverted style of Michael Torke's 'Javelin', a particular favorite of mine.) The second movement is an extended chorale whose predominant mood is one of quiet longing. The Scherzo is a mélange of tricky cross-rhythms and sassy percussion; it has a bluesy middle section which features the odd but effective combination of marimba, tabla and glockenspiel. The finale also features dance rhythms and frequent meter changes. There is a quiet section with divisi strings and woodwinds, reminiscent of the second movement, and then the final section revisits the engaging materials of the first movement. This is an immediately appealing albeit extremely sophisticated work that bids fair, given half a chance, of becoming a modern American repertoire piece. I hope other orchestras take it up. I cannot imagine it not being a huge success wherever it is played, especially if done with the élan on display in this fine performance.
The Second, commissioned by the Detroit Symphony, is dramatic in content, having been inspired by Hailstork's trip to Africa where he saw 'the dungeons where the slaves were held before being shipped overseas. I put my reaction to that sad scene in movement two of the symphony.' Movement four commemorates the strength and determination of 'a people who had arrived in America as slaves.' The sonata-allegro first movement features stabbing brass chords and ominous percussion, along with angular string figures. II features an ineffably sad English horn melody and an agitated middle section. III has irregular rhythms, brilliant wind and brass interjections, and an overall feeling of disquiet. The finale begins with a solo clarinet in its chalumeau register connoting a quiet determination. It alternates with pensive string passages. There is some agitation but the mood of the piece begins to become more transparent, more optimistic and the symphony ends with a song of triumph that yet has ominous reminiscences.
I recommend this CD -- music and performance -- without reservation, and urgently recommend greater attention be paid to the music of Adolphus Hailstork, a major composer in our midst.